Sonny Gindi, Founder of Century 21 Department Store, Dies at 88

A pillar of the Sephardic community in Brooklyn, Sonny Gindi, died at the robust age of 91 on May 20th.On May 20th, the Sephardic Jewish world was rocked to the core as they learned of the death of one of the most outstanding philanthropists in the history of Brooklyn’s renowned Sephardic enclave— a community noted worldwide for the importance it places on the giving of charity and helping those in need.

Sonny Gindi, the co-founder and co-owner of the Century 21 chain of department stores, died at the robust age of 88, and is being remembered nowadays by those who knew him well as more than just an exceptionally industrious and tremendously successful entrepreneur, but the living embodiment of warmth and generosity; devotion, humility, and care.

“Sonny’s success could be attributed to his belief that Hashem blesses those who extend themselves to those less fortunate, who share their material without reservation and who never turn down the requests from worthwhile institutions,” a leading Sephardic community member and former business associate of Sonny’s told the Jewish Voice under a request of anonymity. “What distinguished Sonny from others was his humble and unassuming nature. He never flaunted his wealth; he never boasted and always gave with a full heart.”

Indeed, Gindi’s renowned largesse impacted immeasurably in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic circles. As a stalwart supporter of the United Jewish Appeal, Gindi was also the chief benefactor of a seemingly infinite list of synagogues, schools, mikvot, bikur cholim societies and community centers in the Sephardic communities of Brooklyn, the Jersey Shore, Florida, Israel, and beyond. Among them was the International Sephardic Education Fund (ISEF), which, according to the organization’s website, aims to “narrow Israel’s socio-economic gap through higher education for gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” ISEF was founded in 1977 by famed philanthropist Edmond J. Safra, Lily Safra, and Nina Weiner.

Sonny’s rise to prominence in the business world began at age 9, when he first started working following his father’s death. At age 14 he opened his first store and dedicated himself to gaining a thorough knowledge of how retail businesses operate. In the 1950’s, Gindi opened a children’s wear store with his goods coming from manufacturers in the Philippines. In 1959, along with partner Alfred Sutton, Gindi opened the iconic Lolly Togs children’s wear business. Despite recessions and frequent economic downturns over the years, Lolly Togs had remained the leader in the fine quality children’s wear industry.
“Through hard work and perseverance, Sonny and I were able to enter the major business markets of Japan and Hong Kong and we were the first importer to do business with Hong Kong,” said Alfred Sutton, Mr. Gindi’s business partner for 50 years. “What really enabled us to become successful in the business world was Sonny’s fine reputation as a man of deep integrity; an honest business owner, who appreciated what he accomplished and was eager to share whatever he had with others.”

Reflecting on the many years of partnership that they shared, Sutton recalled that, “Sonny was an absolute pleasure to work with. He was always there to help me in every way possible and when I needed to be away on business related travels, Sonny was more than glad to take over the day-to-day operations of the business.”  

In 1961, Sonny partnered with leading Sephardic community member Al Gindi and opened what was to become the most successful retail chain of department stores per square foot in the country: Century 21.
“When I saw Sonny on the street back in the day, and asked him ‘If I find a store, would you go partners with me?’ Sonny didn’t even blink an eye,” Gindi told the Jewish Voice.”He didn’t even know me, and said yes.”

Century 21’s flagship store in lower Manhattan has— since its beginnings— become one of the most recognized Manhattan department stores. It is remembered by many as having attracted worldwide attention as the emotional flashpoint during and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The store was evacuated after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and the interior was heavily damaged from the collapse of the Twin Towers. Initially, it remained unclear as to whether the store would be rebuilt, but Sonny and Al opted to remain at the same site. The store was renovated and reopened in the summer of 2002 and thousands of people waited hours on the morning of the reopening so they could have a sales receipt from that momentous day.

Today, Century 21 has locations in Westbury, Long Island, Rego Park in Queens, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Morristown, New Jersey and Paramus, New Jersey, and, soon, on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.
“The Jewish community in Brooklyn has always had a special place in their hearts for Sonny Gindi,” said a member of the Sha’are Zion synagogue on Ocean Parkway as he was entering the building for morning prayers. Among the charitable projects that were especially important to Sonny was the building of Sha’are Zion, and he remained on the synagogue’s founding committee for several decades.

As a staunch believer in helping to educate the youth of the community in their rich traditions and heritage, Gindi also served as president of the Magen David Yeshivah from 1970-1972 and was involved in a multitude of projects and committees relating to the growth of this celebrated school. In an obituary that appeared in the New York Times, Sonny Gindi was acknowledged for “his support, leadership, perseverance and tireless efforts on behalf of UJA-Federation of New York,” a leading Manhattan-based Jewish organization.

Although he lost his father at such a tender age, Mr. Gindi never neglected the honors incumbent upon a son to his father, and as such built a synagogue in his name on Avenue S and East 8th Street, called Bnei Yitzchak, which is a thriving center of prayer and Torah learning.

“I can talk for hours about Sonny’s good deeds and amiable nature, but what I will say and I’m sure others in our community will vouch for, is that when the chips were down, if you needed help, Sonny is the guy you turned to,” said Stanley Chera, another highly-respected community member who was a close friend of Sonny’s. “He loaned money to people in our community who wanted to start businesses and he made sure that no one ever went without an income. For that and much, much more, we know that his memory will be for a blessing and his incredible legacy will endure.”

“Sonny wasn’t only a partner; he was my friend. And I will miss him dearly,” added Al Gindi. “May he rest in peace.”

Sonny Gindi was married to Irene Tawil and is survived by his four children; Isaac, Eddie, Jack and Rachelle.